We never really planned on going to Iceland. Our original itinerary for the girls' first international vacation was Nicaragua. We had everything researched, flights booked, Airbnbs reserved, transportation arranged, and then the 2018 protests and civil conflict erupted making travel with kids too dicey for us. My husband randomly suggested Iceland, and as I started reading about it, I got hooked on the idea. We switched out our shorts and sandals for rain jackets, sweaters, and hiking boots.
I planned our trip around three different areas that seemed realistic with a six and nine-year-old. Originally, I thought we could do this major haul and drive the whole way around the island in a week, but after I started researching, the possibility of that with kids was pretty much out of the question. I reeled in the fantasy and gave ourselves some wiggle room. I pared it down to three and a half days exploring the southern coast, two and a half days around the Snaefellsnes western peninsula, and a day and a half in Reykjavik.
Transportation - We took a red-eye flight and did not sleep at all on the plane. We felt comfortable enough to drive on our own, so we rented a car through Blue Car Rental. They have a free shuttle from Keflavik International Airport which worked out really well for us. We were exhausted but motivated by pure adrenaline to see as much as possible on our first day which ultimately felt like a sleep-deprived hallucination on a frosty planet of lush green mountains and milky, jade water. I highly recommend driving in Iceland. There were so many moments where we stopped spontaneously and saw things that weren't planned. I can't imagine seeing this country any other way.
Lodging - Because of the last minute travel plans, we found Airbnb to have the most reasonable rates with interesting and unique accommodations. Our first night was an adorable little tin cottage in a tiny fishing village on the southern coast called Eyrarbakki. It didn't look like much from the outside, but the inside was quaint and comfortable. Our host welcomed us with some licorice-flavored chocolate. We did explore the village and coastline, and enjoyed the sleepy feel of the area.
Weather and Time Change - Our visit was in July which is also Iceland's summer. Their summer months only average a temperature of 55°F so it's nothing like our hot, humid summers in PA. We packed lots of rain gear, hats, and wore layers and hiking boots every day. We had a fair amount of rain and a few days that were in the low 60s. When the sun is shining, Icelandic people flock to their decks and lawns in bathing suits. We're walking around in sweaters while everyone else is out sunning. They probably thought we were nuts all bundled up like that. The other lovely thing about Icelandic summers is the never-ending daylight.
Our nights and days were messed up from day one since we caught an overnight flight. Then the sun shines crazily past 10pm, and it makes you feel like the day never ends, basically because it doesn't! Our youngest was at her melting point one night, and I couldn't understand why she was so cranky. I checked my phone and realized it was 10:30pm, sun blasting us past the ability to gauge time. We slept in really late after our first night, and this helped. We also made sure our Airbnbs had black-out shades, and we brought melatonin along for getting settled in when the body is tired but the mind is thinking it's noon adventure time.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
The Golden Circle
This route takes you from Reykjavik to three of Iceland's most well-known tourist attractions including Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir Hot Spring Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. The circle can be driven in one day, and we did all three before heading to our Airbnb. I would definitely love to go back and spend some more time in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park as we really only saw the Öxarárfoss Waterfall on our quick spin through these top sites.
This is the waterfall I dream about. There are so many incredible things about this country. One is that there are lots of free and inexpensive things to see. While you may be spending a lot on food and gas, the sightseeing is very affordable. The other thing that we love about Iceland is how raw and undisturbed everything is. You can view nature without all sorts of ropes and signs up warning off stupid behavior. I couldn't believe this place. Not only is the water cascading from impossible heights, but you can also walk the whole way around the falls and see it from behind. We were like little kids dancing under the droplets and watching the rainbows shine from every angle. The rocks are slippery and the going is slow, but Seljalandsfoss is something out of a fantasy movie.
After taking in Seljalandsfoss, continue down the trail along the mountains and you'll see some beautiful wildflowers and other falls. The girls were especially excited about this gem hiding behind a crack in the cliffs, Gljufrabui.
Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin)
Iceland has geothermal hot springs everywhere. They also have tons of swimming spots that are fed by these naturally occurring springs. The Secret Lagoon was our favorite. Locals call it Gamla Laugin, "Old Pool," since it was the first public swimming pool. The hot springs surround the man-made pool and run directly into it . Some areas in the pool are just warm and those closer to the bubbling, mushy springs are hot, hot, hot. Lounging in this hotpot water was ahhhhmazing. They even supplied pool noodles to float around on. The bottom is made of large, smooth rocks that make the whole experience feel completely natural and relaxing.
An important note about hot pot swimming hole etiquette ... you have to shower and wash with soap before entering the pools, naked and with other guests. It's a big deal here, and we prepped the kids for it ahead of time. Custom requires you to shower fully and wash off any contaminants you may have on your skin before entering the swimming area. It's like gym class all over again. Ultimately, it's really not a big deal but nice to know before you go.
The surrounding mountains and billowing fog made for a hazy dreamlike setting, but then you get closer and see that the pool is pretty decrepit. The day we were visiting, the water level was less than half of what it should be. You could see the water line left on the rocks and mud, making the shallow end only about ankle deep. Even though this was disappointing, we still wanted to have the experience so we left our clothes with our backpacks and climbed into the pool. The bottom was slimy and there were chunks of mud and sediment floating everywhere. We walked around, snapped a few pictures, and got out of there. The water was lukewarm at best, and we were freezing in that brisk Icelandic air. Changing out of our wet clothes in the ramshackle building was an adventure.
The hike would have been too cold in wet clothing, so we definitely had to brave the co-ed changing shed. It's really just a concrete room with a few hooks. Too many tourists have trashed the place leaving it a junky mess. Get in, get changed FAST, and take all of your crap with you. It was quite an experience. The views from the pool were incredible. The hike was incredible. The pool was not so much but in all, a fun adventure worth checking out.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
This famous beach was used in filming for Game of Thrones, and I can see why. It's dark and dramatic with black pebbles, black sand, caves, and intimidating rock formations. It poured rain all day when we visited Reynisfjara which was such a bummer. This was one of my favorite two things we saw, and I could have easily spent hours wandering around. Parking is free, and they do have pay bathrooms available as well. Even with our full rain gear, we were soaked all day. We didn't let the rain stop us from exploring, and the weather only added to the moody environment. It felt like a place where it should always be raining.
The beach is juxtaposed with towering basalt columns. There are also lots of warnings about dangerous sneaker waves that can roll onto the beach at any time. Make sure to visit at low tide times so you have enough beach area to walk on without getting too close to the water and so you have enough safe space to view the black, looming columns. We also found all sorts of little rock sculptures and stacks left by creative visitors.
Postscript: What I Missed
Things to hit up next visit:
Thingvellir National Park : Silfra Fissure - you can dive or snorkel in the crack between two tectonic plates in what is said to be the clearest water in the world
Faxi Waterfall - part of the Golden Circle drive
Kerid Crater Lake - a bright blue lake inside a volcano surrounded by red rock. This is also part of the Golden Circle route.
Laugarvatn Fontana - natural steam baths/pools and a geothermal bakery. Wait, what? They dig up pots of fresh bread from the hot, black sand. Um yes please.
Slakki Petting Zoo - Admission includes a mini-golf course
Skogafoss Waterfall - beautiful falls that come directly from two different glaciers
Myrdalsjokull - glacier sitting atop the volcano, Katla where people take lots of tours on snowmobiles or into ice caves
Skogar Museum and Turf Houses - museum to experience Icelandic architectural heritage. We were lucky enough to see some turf houses from the road while driving but did not get to see this museum.
Landmannalaugar - Rhyolite Mountains, lava field and hot springs. The mountains consist of a range of geological elements that leave them dappled with lots of contrasting colors.
Solheimssandur airplane wreckage and beach - Ugh we almost made it to this one. This was the day it was pouring at Reynisfjara. We stopped to start this hike but the rain was so torrential, and the girls were so tired, we just couldn't get into the spirit it required. This is a longer hike along a black sand beach to a real plane wreck. The abandoned plane, a Navy DC, ran out of fuel in the 70s and crashed on the beach.
Dyrholaey Arch - a massive rock arch with lots of birds to watch
Svartifoss Black Falls - waterfall surround by basalt columns in Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon - take boat tours to see the wildlife and free-flowing icebergs. Check out the black sand at Diamond Beach. This beach has little ice chunks lying all over the sand like glistening diamonds.
I reviewed this book earlier on it's own but was having a hard time finding a new pairing for Iceland. Although Kristin Hannah's book is set in Alaska, it brings to mind a lot of the things we loved about Iceland. Both settings are vast, dangerous, beautiful, and unique. They both share a lush bounty but also an element of wildness. People travel to these locations to see nature in its raw forms, and that experience can be life-changing.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It's me not you. I feel bad that I'm not crazy about this book. It's just a book with no feelings, yet I want to prop it up and just can't. The writing is beautiful and sets the scene of Alaska's untamed, dangerous, and addicting landscape. There's really nothing wrong with the book. I think part of my issue was that I just didn't have a lot of time and was reading it in such small doses, that I lost my connection with it. I couldn't absorb the setting and characters in the way they deserved. Leni's father, Ernt, comes home from his time as a POW in the Vietnam War, and fights demons that manifest in violence with his family. He's irrational and impulsive and packs the family up to head to Alaska to fend for themselves while retreating from the world. Isolated and unprepared, Ernt forges ahead, quickly making enemies. Leni finds comfort in her newly learned independence and the strength of the local people who show her kindness and compassion. Her coming-of-age arc also includes her mother, Cora, who is the main target of Ernt's rage. Leni finds her first love and a tragic end amidst the formidable allure of the Alaskan backdrop. Kristin Hannah's book paints a raw and emotional picture of domestic violence and the way in which it festers and infects all those involved.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.